Wednesday, 18 May 2011

The memories that never leave you

Somebody was asking me the other day how I came up with the idea for my thriller The Doomsday Testament. I said that I just sat down one weekend, thought of a long forgotten artefact with world-changing potential, created a suitable myth around it set in a time I was interested in, then gave my character, Jamie Saintclair, the job of solving the mystery of where it had vanished to.

I now realise that isn't true.

The Doomsday Testament is actually about the secrets that men keep, even from their families. For years, ever since I was little, I'd asked my father that age old question 'What did you do in the war, daddy?' and he'd just smiled. Only gradually did he reveal that he'd been in Malaya during the Emergency (they were too coy to call it a war), but not as one of the famous Virgin Soldier conscripts, he'd had a great time and the only injury he'd suffered was on the football field.

My dad, centre, with two soldiers from an Irish regiment
It wasn't until he was in his seventies that I learned what really happened. At that point, he seemed to need to recall what had been the most traumatic and vivid time of his life and pass it on to me, his eldest son. In the late 1940s and early 50s he'd served one tour of duty with the Seaforth Highlanders, mainly in the uniquely dangerous position as platoon scout, patrolling the Malayan jungle looking for the enemy, CTs or communist terrorists. He'd killed and seen men, including his friends, die, some of them in terrible ways. But when he returned to Britain he immediately asked for a transfer so he could go back to Malaya on a second tour. This time he had to watch as his comrades in the Gordons went through the same deadly learning curve he'd already experienced, officers shunning the advice of a mere private. It culminated in one of the deadliest ambushes of the war, with a British major, a captain and a lieutenant killed along with many others.

He kept all this bottled up for more than fifty years, but I doubt that never a day passed without him remembering one or other aspect of that time in the jungle. When he did eventually speak, it was obvious those events had changed him and that the mental scars they'd caused still remained. A few months before he died last year he left me a history of his life in about 30-odd tight written pages.

I didn't see that 'journal' until many months after I'd come up with the idea for The Doomsday Testament, but the central theme of my book is a young man's journey of discovery through his grandfather's diary of the last days of World War Two.

And my point is? I don't really know. I just thought it was worth mentioning.

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